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Ashland volunteers find ways to assist Hispanic community

ASHLAND — Many Ashland restaurants have closed their doors, but some of the best food around sits wrapped on a table under a tent in the El Tapatio parking lot, at 1633 Highway 99 in Ashland — food made with hope and love, restaurant owner Ramiro Padilla said.

When the Almeda fire broke out Sept. 8, Padilla watched flames roar along Highway 99 from his restaurant. He never closed. Instead, he kept the grills and ovens going and offered evacuees hot meals and clean water.

On Thursday, Padilla continued serving people from his business site, where Red Cross trucks and independent volunteers distributed food, clothing and other necessities. About 100 to 150 people have come through each day for the past two weeks — some return every two to three days to resupply or find items for new temporary homes.

Feeding people who need help is a mission for Padilla.

“Everybody has the same color in their blood,” he said.

Volunteer Debi Smith joined the effort Sept. 15 after searching for a way to help members of the Latino community affected by wildfires. She arrived for a day of work and stayed through the week and into the next, building up a meal area from boxes into organized food service tables.

On Thursday, one woman who requested a “small meal” received a hearty homemade burrito, tortilla chips and salsa — Padilla insists on no hungry people.

Last week, a woman who lost her home and is temporarily housed in a church brought oatmeal to serve. Sharing food with others was a positive outlet, and by Saturday her homemade pozole was served with a radiant attitude, Smith said. For herself, the atmosphere is a welcome break from a politics-centric news environment.

“I’ve been following politics a lot lately,” Smith said. “Coming here, one of the things that I’ve seen — there’s no politics. It’s people who need help and people who want to help. It’s humans helping humans.”

She says she feels honored to serve people who reciprocate help with honest gratitude. They share stories and shed tears together.

Smith’s subpar Spanish has drastically improved over the past two weeks, with help from preacher Gregorio Ruiz, who supplied a cheat-sheet of important phrases.

As many people search for the “right thing” to say to someone who just lost everything, Smith does her best to express apology with her eyes, above her mask. Lo siento. Vaya con dios.

Smith’s close friend Kathy Sager, and their daughters, who all volunteered at the El Tapatio site Thursday, also served in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Returning to the disaster relief environment brought a sense of deja vu, she said. In some ways, the scale of destruction is smaller. But for both women, witnessing the aftermath of the Almeda fire up close is more personally devastating.

“It’s sadder for me because this is our community that was affected, including my mother,” Sager said, as she cleaned salsa packets before setting them out for the next hungry visitor.

Allayana Darrow / Ashland Tidings El Tapatio owner Ramiro Padilla aims to share hope through food